The Early Medieval Archaeology Student Symposium 2016

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Presenting in the Chapter House

This past week, I found myself in Bristol, attending and presenting at the 10th Annual Early Medieval Archaeology Student Symposium. It was held in the chapter house of Bristol Cathedral, which I believe was the first time an academic conference had chosen the cathedral as a venue. I found that surprising, as the cathedral was a wonderful venue with marvelous staff.

The conference was relatively small – no more than about 40 people – but I would argue the papers delivered were strong and the research solid. And the smallish nature of the conference let everyone get to know each other much more than you would at larger symposiums, making the whole thing a touch less formal, more familiar.

John Tighe made some really interesting points about mortuary practices in Ireland during the transition from Paganism to Christianity, stating that for at least 2 centuries, many cemeteries would have both Pagans and Christians buried within them. Cemeteries were organised by family, not religion, and so this blend was entirely possible.

A number of people commented on complexity – Scott Chausee remarked that texts say the Anglo-Saxons just showed up and started killing people, but it’s probably more complicated than that. People interact in more complex ways, and while there was warfare in certain areas, that wasn’t the case everywhere. Justine Biddle urged us to look at the full story and possibilities of meaning behind an object, the changing biography it has rather than choosing an arbitrary point in time as the ‘truth’ and all other changes being some aberration of that. Finally, Catrine Jarman looked at mortuary practices and assemblages in mass graves across Viking Age England and discovered differences in how remains were treated, even within mass graves.

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Bristol Cathedral from the outside – it was rather rainy both days.

Robert Smisson had one of the best quotable lines, in my opinion, stating that when your crop fails, you don’t immediately care so much about why it happened, you care about not dying. The point was that the questions we often ask of the past are not the questions individuals at the time were asking, and the issues we concentrate on differ from those seen as important in the past.

Rose Hedley made a similar remark, this time focusing on soldiers. Soldiers, she argued, would hardly be completely unaware of the political contexts or the conflicts in which they fought. While they may have differed in their perception of that context or the degree to which they understood the complete context, no soldier walked into war entirely blind, just because. This is a seemingly obvious statement, but sometimes scholars need reminding of seemingly obvious things.

A number focused on spatial relations between sites. Matt Austin reminded us that centrality is relative – a central place now was not necessarily central a millennium ago, and a place is only central within the context of its surrounding area. Adam McBride mapped distributions of wealth (as far as can be determined) in 6th – 7th century graves along the Upper Thames and found that centres of wealth, at least in terms of burials, changed through the period and differed based on the sex of the individual. Andrew Welton then took an interesting stance in looking at recycled iron in spearheads, concluding that the recycling was actually decorative, and the connection of the material to land claims in post-Roman Britain.

The Wills Memorial Building - not related to the conference, but cool building near the department

The Wills Memorial Building – not technically related to the conference, but cool building near the department

The next day began with digital technologies, specifically a paper by yours truly, but I will post on that later. Megan Kasten followed it up with a paper about 3-dimensional reconstructions of the grooves in carved stones, specifically those at Govan Old in Glasgow, to uncover differences in carving styles and techniques.

Then we took a quick jaunt to the Mediterranean, where Simona Uccella spoke about the San Donato Church in Capodrise, Italy. The church was badly damaged in WWII and was never restored, but its unusual architecture reveals a complexity in religious practice during the early medieval period.

The final two papers talked about landscape, one by Alex Thomas in relation to the boundary of the Danelaw in England, and the other by Beatrice Widell in attempting to identify possible location for lost Columban monasteries.

All in all, it was a strong conference, with interesting remarks by those involved. The weather was a bit miserable, but the subsequent lighting made the chapter house of Bristol Cathedral an even more interesting place to hold a conference than it already was. The relatively small size let us cram ourselves into pubs and restaurants with relative ease and float between tables to chat about our research. It also led to everyone learning there would be a bid for Trinity College Dublin to host the conference next year, and rather than putting up any counter offers, we decided to unanimously support the decision.

So thank you to those who organised EMASS 2016 in Bristol, thank you to those who presented and attended and made the week as much fun as it was, and thank you to Trinity College Dublin for taking up the task of hosting next year!

Delegates relaxing on the grass outside Odda's Chapel in Deerhurst.

Delegates relaxing on the grass outside Odda’s Chapel in Deerhurst before heading our various ways home.

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About Heather Christie

Heather is an archaeologist, photographer, and writer whose research focuses on beads and bead trade, particularly in a maritime sense. She's currently working working on a PhD in Digital Design (focusing on heritage visualisation) at the Glasgow School of Art.
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